Director: Steve McQueen
Talent: Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez, Colin Farrell, Daniel Kaluuya, Liam Neeson
Released: 6 November
Steve McQueen has won a Turner Prize and an Oscar. Feted and garlanded throughout his two careers as an artist and an auteur filmmaker, there’s nothing left to do but take some risks. But how do you set out on a strange new foray when what you’re known for is coming in from an angle?: make a more conventional, genre film, of course. Doing so must feel for McQueen like stepping out of his comfort zone, so maybe that’s why he’s enlisted the help of Gillian Flynn on the script. I admire McQueen’s audacity. But then there’s the film that’s resulted from it…
When three women learn of their husbands’ demise during a botched robbery, they are forced to tie up loose ends by committing a new heist. Well, that’s what eventually come to pass, but there’s endless, lumbering exposition to get through first. The gears of the plot take a million years to grind into locomotion. McQueen isn’t content for us to just be swept along for a fun heist, this has to be a story with great sociological scope as well, made worthier still by his penchant for video-installation longueurs, and some heavy-handed decrying of American society’s ills. There’s just too damn much going on.
An overabundance of threads may have been forgivable, but what really scuppers things here is how greedy the film is with what it wants to achieve. Like the doomed late husbands, McQueen is trying to get away with more than he should have aimed for. Hideous tonal lurches abound in scenes that are often completely discontinuous with each other. A little girl cajoles her mother into helping one of our heroines buy a gun, reminding her that she always says “a gun is a woman’s best friend.” Is this supposed to be funny? Or is it scathing satire? You can’t be The Wire and at the same time give annoying little girls zingers. McQueen’s style is too po-faced to pull off these more humorous moments. Someone with a defter touch for comedy might have been able to make them work, but McQueen is one of the most lugubrious directors alive, as anyone who saw his raucous sex-comedy Shame can attest. It’s as if, having initially forced himself to be more fun, McQueen has backtracked. The inclusion of a widow’s black son being killed by overly trigger happy police feels like its parachuted into the film not only to make us care more about the lead – unnecessary as Viola Davis is in very fine form – but also to signal the film’s virtue in summing up the times. Instead, it feels distastefully shoehorned.
Realism gives way to pulpiness. A late twist pertaining to one of the dead husbands falls embarrassingly flat, as we never knew this character in the first place, so there’s no expectations to be defied.
Gillian Flynn is a great writer of genre fiction and Steve McQueen is an audacious auteur. This alliance, however, has only served to diminish both their respective talents. Unlike Lynne Ramsey, whose latest film, You Were Never Really Here, infused her hitman set-up with new vigour, McQueen has just slathered his film over with an art-house sheen.
And yet the film holds a certain fascination. Some sequences are riveting and many of the characters are richly drawn, Elizabeth Debicki particularly impressing. The barminess means its never boring. Its always better to watch a great director fail than a mediocre one go through the motions. An intriguing shambles.
Words: Rory Kiberd